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á¡kyamuni - An Exhibition of Rare Thankas


The Meaning of Art

In general sense, art is mind-made craft which represents feelings, emotions and thoughts of man. There are many varieties in the art which symnbolize the mental turbulence of human beings. It is a wonderful media, which brings down the high ideological thoughts of saints and scholars in pictorial forms. Moreover, the precious culture and civilization of the pat can also be preserved in the form of arts. The Buddhist art of Ajanta and Ellora caves is the prominent example which illustrates the profound doctrines and practices of Buddhism.

            Buddhist art is more than of aesthetic nature, because each and every image has esoteric values. Hence it generates more spiritual pleasure than the aesthetic one. Every image is symbolic and every part of the image has a significant and every part of the image has a significant meaning. |Most of the images, e.g. of the Buddha and the st£pas etc., are made for use as sacred objects of religion. Therefore, the Buddhistic art is not a mere creation of the artist's mental exercises. The art of Thankas in particular are regarded to be the records of mystic vision gained by saints or lamas during the concentrative meditation.

The origin of Art

The origin of Buddhist art may be traced back to the lifetime of the Buddha himself. We find many exegetical references to strengthen evidences in the Sutra texts, i.e., Vinaya and Tantra, including Maµju¿r¢mula Kalpa and so on. These scriptures explain how to make the image of deities and spiritual figures. We find some other accounts regarding the origin of Buddhist art which state that on the earnest request of a princess of Singhala, Buddha himself sent his own image painted on the cloth. Moreover, the kings contemporary with Lord Buddha used to send Buddha's Images as precious gifts to their closed friends. Thus, the above accounts prove that the Buddhist art originated in the 6th century B.C.

Buddhism was introduced in the central Tibet and adjacent areas during the 7th century AD. and at the same time the Buddhist art might also have begun. In the beginning the style of art in Tibet might have been purely Indian, but in the course of time there might have occurred certain changes in its style under the influence of the Chinese and Nepalese arts. That is why we find many statues of Avalokite¿vara and Maitreya carved out on huge rocks which are in pure G¡ndh¡ra style of art. Some other statues are also found which are entirely different from the previous ones which closely resemble the modem Tibetan style of art. There emerged many different styles in the Tibetan art such as Sman- bris, Sgasr-bris, Tsang-bris and so on. On the basis of drawing of lines and colouring, the differentiation may be made among them.

The subject matter of Thankas may roughly be classified into the following five categories:

1. The Buddha and Bodhisattvas

The Buddha is the one who attains perfect elightenement by eliminating all kinds of defilements. The Bodhisattvas cultivate the bodhicitta and the awareness of emptiness. They are yet to attain the spiritual perfection. Their sacred figures are visualized with the lineage of spiritual transmission from teachers to disciples in order to take refuge and surrender. Both of them are primary factors to develop spiritual qualities.

2. Yidam

Yidam (IÀ¶a Deva) is a chosen deity of the trainee. Yidams are exclusively sambhogak¡ya. Yidam represents his particular characteristic expression of Buddha nature. The trainee visualises to identify with his chosen deity which means to identify with his own primordial nature, free from its defiled .aspects. In this practice, the trainee first develops intense devotion towards his guru who facilitates for the trainee to gain experience with guru lineage and then his own yidam. There are different kinds of yidam, e.g . wrathful, peaceful, semi-wrathful figure and so on. Moreover, yidams have both forms- male and female. The male symbolizes the method, viz, compassion, whereas the female represents wisdom, viz, awareness of emptiness. The union of male and female aspects is known as yab-yum (father and mother forms) which is an indication that the skilful action is impossible without unification of wisdom and method. This symbolism denotes the interaction of these two elements as an aspect of enlightenment.

3. Dharmapalas

Dharmap¡las are the guardians of the Buddha's teachings and doctrines. Their function is to protect the trainees from deceptions and hidrances. They collect facilities for the trainees, so that they can easily observe the ordinances and make fruitful progress in spiritual practices. They promise to Lord Buddha to protect his teachings and remove the obstructions that comes in the dissemination of his doctrines in the world. Mah¡k¡la and Mah¡k¡l¢ are very famous Dharmap¡las in Mah¡y¡na Buddhism.

4. Ma¸·ala and St£pa

The basis of Ma¸·ala is a palace with a central hall having four gates in the four directions. It is a particular mansion in which yidam lives with his consort and entourage. It differs in form according to the nature of yidams. Ma¸·ala is always necessary when the disciple receives the tantric initiation. Ma¸·ala is used by the trainees who have been introduced into practice of particular s¡dhan¡. He practises being equipped with essential ritual objects, viz, vajra, bell and skullcup and so forth. No Tantric path can be developed without depending upon the ma¸·ala.

St£pa is a three dimensional form which represents the mind of the Buddha. It is considered a sacred object for veneration. It may probably be the oldest form of the Buddhist art. It contains the sacred relics of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas, holy texts and other precious things. There are many variations in the design of the st£pas. The basic features are common, just as the bottom, square base, a domelike form, thirteen tapering, round steps, lotus form, a sun held by the crescent moon. The different parts of the st£pa represent five elements and the various aspects of the spiritual path.

5. The Illustration of the Teachings

Buddha's teachings may also be illustrated through the paintings. The painting of the wheel of life is a unique example which depicts the theme of four noble truths. It portrays how to visualise the afflictions in the mind and store the karmic forces. As a result the sentient beings have to be revolved endlessly in the saÆs¡ra. On the contrary, it also depicts the real path which shows how to eradicate the causes of sufferings and attain the salvation from saÆs¡ra. There are many other paintings which illustrate Buddha's teachings, viz, The portrayals which demonstrate the Vinaya rules and the paintings depicting how to develop the concentration of mind step by step and so on.

Preparation of Thanka

The Thankas are usually painted on the pieces of canvas. It is put in lukewarm water with glue and lime to wet. In order to dry it, it is The Thankas are usually painted on the pieces of canvas. It is put in lukewarm water with glue and lime to wet. In order to dry it, it is stretched on the thin wooden square frame. Its surface is rubbed with smooth object until it becomes ready for painting. The main guidelines are drawn first just as the border lines, a central perpendicular and two diagonals and so on according to the figures to be sketched. On the basis of them the main lines of figures are drawn with pencil. The background scenery is painted first and all the parts are gradually painted thereafter. Lastly the eyes are painted.

When the painting becomes ready, it is stitched to a narrow yellow silk border, then to a red silk border and finally to a larger border of blue silk in proportion to the size of the canvas. A flat stick is attached to the top of the Thanka to hang it and a heavy cylindrical stick at the bottom to keep it straight and firm. The two ends of the stick are fitted with caps made of gold and silver and other materials. The front part of the Thanka is then covered with wide and colourful silk. It protects the surface of the Thanka from getting damaged by dust and sun light. There are two narrow strips attached to the top bar which hang on the Thanka when the curtain is tucked up.

The Values of the Thanka

The Thanka has no value unless it has no effusion of the divine spirit. So, after completion of the Thanka, there remains the last important task of consecration (pratiÀ¶h¡). It is done by gathering Lamas according to the rites of consecration. The three syllables OM, AH, HUM represent respectively body, speech and the mind. These are respectively inscribed on the back of the painted canvas, on the spot of head, throat and heart. During the consecration the Lamas sit in meditation and recite mantras. The particular deity is invoked and infused into the image. As a result it becomes a religious object. Thus, the Buddhist Thanka painting is totally based on religious themes. Both the patrons and the artists make the painting with spiritual motivation.

In the Thanka paintings the philosophical and mystical ideas are pictorially illustrated to the visual level. Each and every image symbolises deeply rooted spiritual meaning. For instance, the sword of Muµju¿ri is the symbol of wisdom which is used to destroy the ignorance, the root cause of all the sufferings.


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